The UN gets “disability rights” wrong

May 05, 2008

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When conservatives impute relativism to their opponents, it is usually a straw man.  An instance when this wasn’t the case: this past Saturday’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the State Department says the US is unlikely to sign?although Barack Obama has declared his support for it.  One heading from the CRPD’s website is only nine words, but says it all: Disability Resides in the Society not in the Person.  Under this heading is the bullet point “A child with an intellectual disability might have difficulties going to school due to the attitudes of teachers, school boards and possibly parents who are unable to adapt to students with different learning capacities.”

Unlike the twentieth century, when issues relevant to disability were scattered under broader topics like education, health care, and veterans affairs, the twenty-first century has seen the disabled population turn into a bona fide special interest and pose the Left and Right with the task of developing comprehensive positions on disability as such.  This is a good development, and only partly because, if the UN is any indication, the Left is bound to handle the task poorly.

The UN’s endorsement of the “social construction” theory of disability might seem to flatter those with handicaps, but consider: in the ideal world that the CRPD is working towards, no handicapped person would ever be inconvenienced by his condition, employers would be perfectly indifferent to disability in their hiring practices, and public services would accommodate every special need.  In short, their goal is to make disability essentially invisible.  Anyone who holds this vision as his ideal either believes that the fragility of the human body is actually eradicable?in other words, that men are gods or will be soon?or believes that human fragility is so terrifying that we must make every conceivable effort to avoid confronting it.

Far better to say that disabled Americans should be able to hold jobs, attend schools, and take part in their religious and social communities, but that this is emphatically not the same as saying that their lives should resemble as nearly as possible the lives of the “temporarily able-bodied.”

Conservatives have always held that, while death is terrible, avoidance of death can be carried to immoral and cowardly lengths (this New Atlantis article puts the point well).  If the same kind of balance between acknowledgment of suffering and courage in the face of it can be struck in our attitude towards disability, conservatism could pick up ground on the issue of bioethics and set the terms for a political conversation that is only just beginning.  It would be a shame if this were the only headline to include the words ‘McCain’ and ‘disability’ this election cycle.

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